Democrats battle over best path for Puerto Rico

Greg Nash

Two proposals to redefine Puerto Rico’s territorial status took the ring Wednesday, as a House panel heard the pros and cons of each competing bill.

The bills, one a fast-track to statehood and the other a proposed convention to define the best path forward, represent the two poles of Puerto Rico’s deeply divisive politics.

In a unique move, the House Natural Resources Committee decided to weigh both bills in one hearing, a reflection of a Democratic leadership that’s avoided taking sides on a treacherous issue.

Supporters of both bills were unanimous in opposition of Puerto Rico maintaining its current status, a territorial arrangement that denies the island voting representation in Congress.

But divisions were stark on how to amend that arrangement.

One bill, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, was introduced by New York Democratic Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and proposes a convention to choose among multiple sovereignty options for the island.

The other, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, was introduced by Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-Puerto Rico) and would on passage invite Puerto Rico to become a state, pending a final statehood referendum on the island.

The proposals mirror the two major political currents on the island, where status has been the political center of gravity since the 1952 constitution was approved by the U.S. Congress, when Puerto Rico became officially known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

“At the time this was another major step for Puerto Rico, but it did not resolve the relationship ambiguity with the U.S., as some held that the commonwealth provided Puerto Rico a status that was beyond territory but less than a state,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (Ark.), the top Republican on the Natural Resources panel.

Westerman added that the idea of a hybrid status collapsed under Supreme Court decisions beginning in 2016 that ruled the Constitution only allows one territorial status and the enactment of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, under which Congress established a Fiscal Control Board to oversee the territory’s finances.

That collapse has also spurred the status debate, as Puerto Ricans on the island and in the United States have pushed for increased representation for the territory’s residents.

The Velázquez bill’s status convention is technically open to all potential status arrangements, with the exception of the existing territorial status.

According to the bill’s proponents, potential status arrangements could include independence, statehood, free association and modified commonwealth status.

Critics of that bill argue only two statuses within U.S. sovereignty are possible under the U.S. Constitution: statehood and territory.

Independentists, even those who decry the current status as colonial, are more adamantly opposed to statehood, since the United States does not allow for the secession of established states.

Velázquez’s bill is seen as more inclusive by some on the island because it does not propose a specific end goal.

The bill proposed by Soto and González, on the other hand, is billed as a statehood bill with a clearly defined goal and supported by the plebiscite that accompanied the general election ballot in November.

In that plebiscite, 52 percent of Puerto Ricans chose statehood on a yes-or-no question.

Opponents of statehood argue the plebiscite was rigged, as the pro-statehood New Progressive Party — an amalgamation of centrist Democrats and the island’s Republicans — controlled both houses of the local legislature and the governorship when the plebiscite’s conditions were enacted into law.

“The whole design was to be a one sided campaign,” said Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, a former governor and outspoken opponent of statehood.

But that argument drew stiff pushback from at least one member of the committee, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who compared ignoring the plebiscite to the minority of Republicans who in January voted to overturn the presidential election.

Gallego, who spoke in favor of the statehood bill, said overturning the plebiscite would be an overreach by Congress.

“I think if anything this reeks of paternalism from us stateside members of Congress,” said Gallego.

While most Republicans on the committee yielded their time for González to ask questions of the witnesses, many Democrats opted instead to reserve their time and remain publicly neutral.

“I’ve learned a lot over the years that I will stay out of Puerto Rico’s political status issues. I will stay away from this until when I have no choice but to cast a vote in committee,” said Del. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D) of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Democratic leadership has been purposefully quiet on the issue, as the party’s members have split support between the two bills.

While Velázquez has been seen as closer to some progressives in the Senate, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), her bill’s top proponent in that chamber is Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the powerful, moderate chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Velázquez’s bill also has the support of Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

The Soto bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

While both bills have an opportunity to pass the House, the Soto-González bill had vocal Republican support during the hearing.

That support could make enough of a difference in a deeply divided Senate, particularly as both Democratic leadership and the White House have been careful to avoid leaving fingerprints on either bill.

But the at-times confrontational hearing left clear that Puerto Ricans from throughout the political spectrum expect some change in their political arrangement with the United States.

“Enough of this debate, the ball is in Congress’s court,” said Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi (D), who sat as a witness during the nearly four-hour hearing.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Bob Menendez Bruce Westerman Cory Booker Darren Soto Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan Martin Heinrich Pedro Pierluisi Roger Wicker Ruben Gallego

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